Kecia Ali made a recent post regarding Islamic scholarship on the blog Feminism and Religion, where she speaks in disappointment of “some fields of inquiry where knowledge about female figures is scanty and where not much of the secondary literature to date has been written by women.” She continues, “if I counted index entries for my biography of a ninth century Muslim legal scholar, I doubt I would be pleased with the result.” This could be because there was a shortage of female scholars in the past, or their contributions were erased. In any case, what we’re left with is a religious tradition that came predominantly from the scholarship of men.
Interpretations of religious texts are susceptible to gender biases. If classical Islamic scholarship was dominated by the male perspective and voice, can the traditions and rulings that emerged from it truly represent the egalitarian spirit of Islam? How could generations upon generations of male scholars who took it upon themselves to speak for and about women not be subject to male biases?
Muslim women who speak about their roles within Islam are expected to make use of “authentic” Islamic sources. For example, hadiths pertaining to women’s issues where the entire chain (spanning several generations) is made up of men, then collected, graded and authenticated by men, then interpreted and disseminated by male jurists. What are women to make of this? Challenging scholarly consensus and widely accepted knowledge can be difficult, according to the experiences of Amina Wadud,
I often feel that although I entered into a tradition whose holy prophet required Muslim males and females to seek knowledge until the grave, that as a woman, of African origin, and an American convert to Islam, I was not supposed to seek beyond what others hand down to me… I do find that disagreement with status quo is treated as though it were disagreement with Islam.
That’s not to say I think women shouldn’t agree with tradition (that would be patronising to say the least). Perhaps the rulings derived from classical scholarship are perfectly agreeable to most women, are not a result of patriarchy, and actually do represent authentic Islam. On the other hand, if women don’t challenge the opinions of men (regardless of their good intentions) who spoke and continue to speak for women, what’s the point of female scholars? If they simply repeat and reinforce patriarchal interpretations, isn’t this giving a female mouthpiece to male opinions?
Increasingly I see Muslim men online say things like “I’m not a woman, you should go ask this sheikha, she will be able to help you,” when faced with discussions about Muslim women. Which is good. But the sheikha is typically required to rely on opinions of men that preceded her if she wants to be taken seriously. She may even quote famous male scholars to make her point. So even though men can take themselves out of discussions concerning women’s issues, the male voice often remains dominant.
I think some people who don’t want to admit there was a disparity between men and women in classical scholarship exaggerate the role of female scholars. If you can convince people that rulings like the ones that say a woman shouldn’t pray during her period, that she can’t stand in front of men and be the imam, that she may have to share her husband with up to three other women, or that given the right circumstances she can be subject to legitimate beatings from her husband etc., all came from a tradition which embraced strong female scholarship, then it becomes harder to challenge them on the basis of sexism.
Hence the recent trend of producing lists of female scholars who are said to have made major contributions to Islam. So major in fact, that no one bothered to preserve their works.